Spielberg, Kubrick, Love.
And in this year of 2001, Steven Spielberg comes out with the ultimate homage to the late director Stanley Kubrick: a film that Kubrick intended to produce but never had the chance to. Spielberg was actually the man Kubrick wanted to direct the picture, but Kubrick himself would never get the chance to oversee its coming together. Thus Spielberg had an interesting challenge ahead of him: to combine the pieces which made both directors great and have them come forth in A.I.: Aritificial Intelligence. He did a very good job.
This serves to both impress me and irritate me. I find myself to be a big fan of Spielberg, but my reactions to Kubrick movies are mostly lukewarm. I usually appreciate the way Kubrick tackles a topic on an intellectual level, but I am not able to fully embrace his aesthetics and his sensibilities. Kubrick's movies seem to be made to confound the audience; at the very best, they make you think, but, at the very worst, they annoy you to the point where you don't have a good time watching them. Although somewhat pretentious and cold on many occasions, they do, however, consistently wrestle with issues involving humanity. Meanwhile, my adoration of Spielberg movies is quite natural. His primary goal is to take the audience to a specific emotional goal; he has often been accused of ignoring subtlety to achieve that, but he usually gets his desired results because he is very good at pushing the right buttons. His movies can rouse, thrill, and move audiences. Therefore, the combination of the two directors' styles presents itself as a task that can be seen as almost insurmountable. That Spielberg was able to create a movie filled with wonder and warmth while at the same time give the audience something to scratch their heads about should be considered a major triumph. However, there's always something off-putting about coming away from a movie thinking, "huh?" That's the immediate reaction upon leaving the theater, but something tells me that the appreciation for this movie will only increase with time.
In selecting a facet of humanity that the movie would address, Kubrick had found a story (based on Brian Aldiss's 1969 short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long") that was able to tackle no less grand a subject than love. This is absolutely what the movie is about. What is love, anyway? As Professor Hobby (William Hurt) explains to an assembled group of scientists, love isn't restricted to the kind that exists between man and woman. There's also parent-child love, and the love for a pet, for instance. Hobby and his associates live in a future world where the polar ice caps have melted and robots in the amazing likenesses of humans have become a regular part of society, fulfilling different needs ranging from work to recreation. However, no matter how close to human they seem, the robots are still... well, robotic. They seem emotionless; perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that whatever emotions they do display seem unreal. Hobby proposes the challenge of creating a new kind of robot, one that can give, receive, and display emotional love. To make the love seem even more genuine, the robot that he wants his team to create would be in a form that has yet to be built: that of a child.
Thus, David (Haley Joel Osment) is brought to a couple to live with. The experiment will hopefully answer such questions as: will he love the parents? Will they love him? Will this love be as strong as the love they have for their currently unconscious son on life-support? Well, this is only the beginning. Before it's over, even more questions about love and its definition, its acceptability, and its desirability will be raised. Just how much of love is spirit, and how much of it is science? And does the answer to that question even matter? There are no promises that the majority of these questions will be neatly answered by the time the movie ends. If you don't mind just probing and thinking about the issue of what you really want out of love, and what it's really for in the first place, then you could have a pretty good time following David as he embarks on what will turn out to be a scary yet captivating odyssey.
Spielberg should thank the heavens that Haley Joel Osment exists. The movie's success entirely depends on his performance, and his performance is incredible. For the whole movie, Osment plays a robot boy who is trying to express real emotion, and he pulls it off with remarkable skill. I would be surprised if a viewer didn't get lost in his performance. Osment's talent is truly a gift. I'm gushing, I know. But consider this: he is unequivocally the star of the movie; once he's in the picture, there's barely a scene without him. The movie is not without its flaws, but Osment carries it when the rest of the film hits its weak spots.
For myself, the main weak spots occur in the last act of the movie. I have to admit that I wasn't completely satisfied with it. That, along with that aforementioned "huh?" factor may have served to diminish my overall enjoyment of the movie. But props are given where props are due. Osment shows that his spectacular performance in The Sixth Sense was no fluke. Spielberg and those wizards at Industrial Light and Magic have created a world both bizarre and wondrous to behold. The special effects for the robots are seamless and eye-popping. The movie also has a couple of great characters who aren't people, and I won't tell you who they are here.
I guess this is my way of saying that this movie should be seen. My problem with the Kubrick movies I have seen is that they often explore issues of humanity without a truly human ingredient: emotion. They are detached, and that feeling tends to take away from the exploration of the topic at hand for me. A.I. examines the issue it sets out to examine, but thanks to Spielberg it also does so with a warmth and emotion normally missing from a Kubrick venture. That mix of ingredients sat well with me. The movie made me feel and it made me think. And, as I sit here, the more I think about it the more I like it. I think both Spielberg and Kubrick would've wanted it to be like that.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jul. 2, 2001
(Released by Warner Bros./DreamWorks and rated "PG-13" for some sexual content and violent images.)